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This might be your mother's feminism

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Rules for getting along wtih critical relatives on family vacations [Jul. 6th, 2009|10:03 pm]
This might be your mother's feminism


[mood |accomplished]

The following was an exchange (question and my response) on a parenting mailing list I am on that I am pretty proud of and would love some feedback from other moms who have been there. I paraphrased the question to get to the meat of it.

Dear XXX community:

My husband and I are going on a family cruise with some very critical relatives. They seem to constantly criticize (or roll their eyes and make little comments about)  me or my kids, decisions we have made, and I am concerned that the trip is going to be full of arguments and stress. We are going to be at sea for six days with these people. Help!

"lois lane"

Dear Lois,

First off, ugh and hugs. Never fun getting into it when you are supposed to be enjoying yourself.

Secondly, there are some strategies you can try to use. The first one is to recognize that you cannot control their behavior but you can control how you respond to it. Here are some "rules" I am suggesting for how to live communally with difficult people...

Rule number one: You and your husband are adults and deserve to be respected as intelligent people who make good decisions. While you cannot make other people act on this fact, it is VITAL that you and your DH believe this deep down in your hearts. If you do believe it, they can say absolutely anything at all, and you will just look at them with bewilderment and be able to brush it off.

I think most moms feel vulnerable most of the time. We always seem to feel a bit defensive about our parenting decisions, regardless of what they are. So we tend to take any sort of criticism personally (especially from family) and start to doubt ourselves and our decisions. And to stave off the self-doubt, we tend to get defensive or start to argue when there is any hint of criticism.

But when we are in a place of confidence, we can avoid taking alternative perspectives, and even criticism, personally.

While I am sure you and your DH would be open to new information or alternative perspectives that you hadn't considered, that provision of information must be done respectfully. Otherwise, rule number two is invoked.

Rule number two: don't engage. also known as the "pass the bean dip" rule. You have no need to defend your decisions. When someone says "you shouldn't do X", the proper response is "well, it is working for us. Thanks for your concern. Can you pass the bean dip?" (i.e. negate the comment and change the subject).

I recommend practicing some good come backs, like "Thanks for your perspective. If we decide to change our minds, we'll take that into account. Who wants another drink?" or "well, wouldn't the world be boring if we all raised our kids the same. Hey, I am going for a walk, anyone wanna come?"

The key is DON'T get defensive and DON'T rush in with "evidence" why they are wrong.  Just don't engage. Their opinion, because it is not presented respectfully, is not worth addressing.

Rule number three: Don't ask, don't tell. You cannot trust them so don't give them any ammunition. If you know there are topics they are going to harass you about, don't bring 'em up. For example, if you co-sleep and they don't approve, don't vent about not sleeping well or complain about how tiny the bed is for an adult and child. Keep it between you and your dh. If they ask, keep it light and cheery and always state that everything is going great.

Don't answer questions you suspect are traps to get into an argument - if asked about a contentious subject you know they are going to have a strong opinion on, you can always turn it into "I am still learning all about this subject/we haven't made a decision yet." They may lecture you on the "right" decision, but then you can smile and nod and say "thanks, you have given us a lot to think about."

Rule number four: DON'T GET ANGRY. A cheerful smile while you refuse to engage in the fight is frankly much more annoying to your attacker than a well reasoned defense...(as my mom always said "kill 'em with kindness"). Once they get you angry, they get the upper hand.

Ways to avoid getting angry (because yes, when people are insulting or challenging us, it is hard to not get pissed off). Remember that comments and odd looks from your attacker says more about the attacker's own insecurities than anything about you. Come up with a code word between you and DH to help you remind each other that the attacks are not about you at all, but about your MIL or SIL's own stuff. Practice ahead of time deflecting criticisms with some of "don't engage" comments. Forewarned is forearmed...

Rule number five: Another way to avoid getting angry and to deflect is to turn the conversation around. If they start criticizing something and won't let you change the subject (or keep bringing it up), turn the conversation back to them. "This is the third time you have mentioned X, and you seem very concerned about it. Can you tell me why?" or "you seem very passionate about this subject, can you tell me more about your thinking on it?" You can listen politely and respectfully without agreeing with what they are saying or promising to change.

Rule number six: frame it for your kids. If your kids are old enough to understand that grandma or auntie doesn't like it when they do x, when you are alone with them, you can explain that grandma has different opinions about a subject because she was raised differently or just simply she has different perspective. If they are old enough, you can discuss with them ways to avoid confrontation or how to respectfully defend themselves if they feel criticized.

Rule number seven: agreed to rules for communal child rearing. One of the good things about family is that it can take the load off of the parents of being sole child cargegivers during a family vacation. One of the bad things is that other people have different opinions on how to care for children, some of which are benign (though perhaps annoying) and some of which are far from it. The key is to learn how to tolerate the former and avoid the latter.

One thing that can help is a group conversation right at the start about rules for ALL children and adults to follow. These are "vacation rules" - they may or may not continue post vacation, they may or may not be rules you follow at home, but they are rules that all children and adults must follow while on vacation.

Creating vacation rules can really head off problems b/c you have already discussed "we do it this way at home, but are willing to change due to the specifics of the vacation". They are also pretty important since your normal living arrangements will be very different on a boat than at home.

These rules should cover:
* safety and supervision (who can go where alone, who needs to hold hands, who is able to supervise whom, etc)
* privacy and sharing (when can we enter other peoples rooms, what can we borrow without asking, what do we need to respect).
* manners and standard customs (does everyone eat together or can people eat separately, do the kids need to sit at the table, who gets dessert, etc).
* specifics about individual needs (diaper changes, diets, naps, swimming/walking abilities, exceptions to communal rules, etc).

Good luck. and I hope you have a great vacation and everyone is in a wonderful, supportive mood - or at least they back off and leave you alone!